High-End Memories in the Highlands

2015 is the “Year of Food and Drink” in Scotland, where the cuisine is just part of the adventure.

By Sarah Binder

The Gleneagles Hotel, ExteriorWhiskey-tasting experiences. Seaplane flights over majestic lochs. Falconry lessons. Michelin-starred dining. Today’s Scotland is a seamless blend of traditional and modern pursuits, with several travel and leisure groups perfectly poised to help visitors turn their Scottish fantasies into reality.

Tasting Scotland offers Platinum Customised Tours based in four key areas — food and drink artisan visits, culinary activities, special locations (Glencoe, Loch Lomond, Highland castles), and “everything else your heart could desire, from spas to falconry,” says founder Brenda Anderson. As Scotland’s World Food Travel Association ambassador and former head of food studies at the City of Glasgow College, Anderson leverages her background in luxury hospitality, wine, and gastronomy to work directly with travelers to craft custom tours that can be expert-guided or self-directed.

“We connect visitors with Scotland’s premium, artisan food producers to hear the stories and taste the flavors of these local food heroes, or arrange a cooking experience with a professional/celebrity chef,” Anderson says. “For example, we recently took one client on an Aberdeen Angus organic steak tasting experience and farm visit.” Other clients have interacted with rapeseed oil producers, whiskey barrel makers, and oyster farmers. Custom-crafted tour prices vary. Pricing for an expert-guided, pre-arranged, four-day, three-night Scotland’s Culinary Secrets tour range from £1,945 to £2,425 (about $3,000 to $3,900), while a prearranged Tasting Scotland’s Larder day tour costs £275 (about $427).Eilean Donan 2_VisitScotland

TRS-BAR-06VisitScotland, the country’s national tourist board, has declared 2015 the Year of Food and Drink, “celebrating Scotland’s exceptional natural larder, the role food and drink plays in shaping our economic success, and the people, landscapes, and culture that make our food heritage so unique,” says VisitScotland Chief Executive Malcolm Roughead. “Throughout 2015, hundreds of events will take place, many of which are new or one-off events. Sampling traditional dishes and local produce is the second top activity undertaken by visitors to Scotland, and there has never been a better time to do so.” For example, in celebration of this year’s theme, the organization has partnered with Forest Holidays to offer its guests a brand-new, customizable activity — the Picnic Butler.

7879443650_bd5c415a71_o“It’s a whole experience. You hike with the traditionally dressed Picnic Butler, who is a seasoned ranger and tells you all about the forest, its inhabitants, and where the food comes from,” says Forest Holidays Chief Executive Bruce McKendrick. “The whole experience is quite magical; we emphasize a real engagement with nature, the environment, and the local community.” Guests can customize their high-end picnic by selecting collections of food and drink at different price points, and by working with the Picnic Butler to ensure that their particular interests in the local flora and fauna are fully addressed. The locally sourced lunch may consist of delicacies such as Arran cheese, Tunnocks tea cakes and caramel logs, seasonal local fruit, and Prosecco or champagne. Pricing ranges from £75 to £275 (about $116 to $427).

The Picnic Butler experience is available at Forest Holidays’ two locations of luxury log cabin accommodations in Scotland — Strathyre and Ardgartan Argyll. Both idyllic locations offer private cabins with hot tubs, heated flooring, fully equipped kitchens, and en suite baths. During the summer high season, a two-bedroom Silver Birch cabin with a hot tub is £785 (about $1,219) for a weekend.

7879463384_20437e9a8b_kIf your sense of adventure is not on the foodie spectrum, Wilderness Scotland Tailor Made Holidays can create a bespoke adventure for you and your fellow travelers. Their expert guides work with guests to design customized itineraries in a variety of pursuits, such as chartering a luxury Swan 68 sailing yacht with an experienced skipper to explore the Hebrides isles along the West Highlands coastline, or high-comfort camping in Mongolian-style yurts. Ever-popular are small, private group Highland castle stays, with options such as Inverlochy Castle, built in 1863 by the first Lord Abinger, and uniquely located amongst the glens, lochs, and mountains of the West Highlands. Wilderness Scotland not only arranges accommodations, but also provides a guide who creates exciting itineraries full of kayaking, canoeing, cycling, fishing, and guided wildlife and photography walks, where guests may spot white-tailed sea eagles or black-throated divers.

In a relatively small country that boasts such a highly varied, often visually arresting landscape, a journey itself can be as opulent as the castle where you eventually rest your weary head. The Belmond Royal Scotsman is based in Edinburgh and transports guests to the heart of the Highlands on a variety of multi-night journeys. Each journey services just 36 guests, who can relax in their own private cabins with full en suite baths, an observation car with an open-air veranda, or mahogany-paneled dining cars, where guests sip single-malt Scotch and savor fine delicacies such as warm pigeon salad with blackcurrant dressing. The four-day, three-night Western Journey, from $5,340 per person, takes in classic sites including Loch Lomond, Ben Nevis, the Isle of Bute, and the Gothic-Revival Mount Stuart House.

Whisky_barrels_Credit Scottish ViewpointScotland is making strides not only in the bespoke experiences and elegant transportation options it can offer discerning travelers, but also in unique high-end accommodations. In addition to traditional luxury lodging such as Prestonfield House and The Balmoral Hotel, visitors to Edinburgh soon will have a new, original accommodation option. The iconic heritage vessel MV Windsor Castle, a former lighthouse boat, is being converted into a 25-room luxury ‘boatique’ hotel. It will be berthed permanently in the historic port of Leith next to the popular attraction Royal Yacht Britannia, which was home to Her Majesty The Queen and the Royal Family for more than 40 years and sailed more than 1 million miles around the world. The MV Windsor Castle stands to become Scotland’s first ‘boatique’ hotel when it opens as scheduled in spring 2016 after a £1 million (about $1.6 million) renovation.

Wilderness Scotland 7Deciding how to maximize your time in such a topographically diverse country may be overwhelming. McKendrick recommends that travelers enjoy the best of both worlds — top-notch gastronomic, cultural, and shopping excursions in Glasgow and Edinburgh combined with a stay on a loch in some of the country’s luscious, unspoiled Forest Commission land. “Come to Edinburgh for a few days; see the sites. When you’re tired, check yourself into a luxury cabin for a few days and relax,” he says.

9307988844_41481be424_oAnderson also notes Scotland’s growing emphasis on providing opportunities for travelers to focus on relaxation, health, and wellness. “We will soon launch a seven-night health and wellness ‘Highland Recharge Vacation’ focusing on relaxing the mind, invigorating the body, and reconnecting with nature (expert-guided walks in the hills and glens) and higher meaning and self-improvement endeavors. Eating well, socializing around the table, and cooking using premium, organic produce is central to feeling good and will be at the core of this new and exciting luxury retreat experience,” she says.

VisitScotland plans to build on the successes of last year’s Year of Homecoming marketing campaign to entice even more international travelers. “In 2014, we showed everyone that we are the perfect stage for sporting, cultural, and business events with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, The Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, and the 1,000 events of Homecoming, which captured the imagination of millions of people around the world,” says Roughead.

“As we look ahead, according to the National Tourism Development Framework, there is currently £10.2 billion (about $15.8 billion) of tourism development taking place in Scotland, incorporating 640 exciting projects throughout the country, which include the new V&A Museum of Design at Dundee and the planned revamping of the Trump Turnberry Resort,” he says.